In December 2003, the two authors of this paper, accompanied by Michael Pearson, attended 'Narratives of the Sea: Encapsulating the Indian Ocean World', a conference which took place in New Delhi at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.1 We delivered this paper on the first day, and by the end of the second had discovered that we were the only non-historians, apart from one or two people in the final session discussing strategic studies. This goes some way towards explaining why our paper was received somewhat quizzically. 'From what I understand', said one listener, 'your paper emerges from a kind of philosophical base?' This anecdote does not serve to argue either that the discipline of history has a stranglehold on Indian Ocean studies in the subcontinent or that cultural studies is unknown there.
Our 'strangeness', however, helps us to highlight the fact that interdisciplinary approaches to the Indian Ocean are fairly new, and that ecological topics in cultural studies more generally are also rare. This paper, then, is an attempt to begin discussion on these two fronts, hoping that further research will be able to document it in more detail. For the purposes of the conference, we cast our argument as being both about Indian Ocean stories and a story in itself, and cast it in three parts: the pre-colonial Indian Ocean, the colonial one, and the postcolonial or contemporary situation.
Outlining what we had done so far, we stressed the importance of the category of culture. The argument is that it is as significant a category in the Indian Ocean (perhaps more so because the Indian Ocean has greater historical depth) as it is in Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic, where 'race' emerges so strongly in conjunction with slavery, moving across national boundaries and histories. This topic, slavery, could not be understood simply as a European, or an American, or even African phenomenon; it is, quite rightly, Oceanic'. And this particular oceanic trade eventually became an efflorescent culture: Black modernism in, say, the form of music-jazz, blues, rock-is a cultural effects of what started as an intercontinental trade in human commodities. We have begun this kind of work in the Indian Ocean with the translation and publication of Daniella Polices essay, the first description of Mauritian slave music (sega) published in English.2
Our emphasis on narrative has three aspects. Narratives are first of all formal devices; they provide us with ways of recounting histories according to a kind of logic, a linear one of beginnings, middles and ends, but with the necessary wandering or complication of the plot in the middle of the story where potential variations of the story are explored. In this respect, there is something both universal and natural about narrative structure. Narration is one way in which cultures become second nature to us, tempting us already to break down the nature-culture division and to talk, with Bruno Latour, about natureculture.3
The second aspect of narrative is its theoretical one. This is where we speak of the conceptual content of a narrative, asking ourselves 'what kind of story about the world is this?' This is a meta-narrative level, where thousands of oft-repeated stories can feed up into a generic level, so that we identify an imperial narrative, a sacred narrative, a modernist one, or indeed the post-humanist one informing this talk today.
Finally, the third aspect is empirical and material. We are treating narratives as testimony and evidence of the lives of people we encounter who tell us stories about the sea. We want to see how types of story might cluster in one place or get traded from port to port; they are as material as the goods that they accompany, and we are conscious of how commodity value is enhanced with the story accompanying the seller-a good story is a value-adding device.
Our own story for this paper has a typical three-part structure. …